DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The South Texas borderlands get a lot of bad press as the site of illegal immigration, drug smuggling, occasional cartel mayhem. That's how the president sells the border wall. What many people don't realize is the southernmost tip of Texas is also home to many butterflies and other rare animals, native grasses and herbaceous plants. They're one-of-a-kind nature preserves. And as NPR's John Burnett reports, residents are furious that the border wall could destroy the refuges.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: To see another view of the Rio Grande Valley, climb up the metal steps to the top of the hawk tower in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The rest of the valley may be awash with trailer parks and great fruit orchards and Home Depots, but from up here, you look down on a dense emerald canopy of original subtropical forest.
JIM CHAPMAN: It is so primeval.
BURNETT: Within this 2,000-acre federal sanctuary dwells an ark of biodiversity - 400 species of birds, half of the nation's butterfly species and the shy, endangered ocelot.
CHAPMAN: Wildlife hangs onto these little pieces that are left. That's all they've got.
BURNETT: Jim Chapman, a retired physician's assistant, is a longtime nature activist down here in the valley. Like many others, he was incredulous when the Border Patrol confirmed recently that the first section of the new border barrier will be erected on top of the levee right through the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. He fears for the wild things.
CHAPMAN: Once the wall is built, it would become their doom because when the river goes into flood, they'd have no way out.
BURNETT: The chief of the Rio Grande Valley sector of the Border Patrol is adamant that an 18-foot iron fence through the reserve is necessary because smugglers like the dense brush, too.
MANNY PADILLA: The refuge is a huge refuge for smuggling activity as well.
BURNETT: Chief Manny Padilla says, since last October, there have been eight human smuggling cases and more than 2 tons of marijuana seized inside the refuge. He acknowledges they'll have to clear wildlife habitat on either side of the wall for an access road. The government chose Santa Ana to start the fence because it's already federal land. Padilla reassures that there will be gates to allow public access to popular areas south of the wall.
PADILLA: You've got border security, and then you have conservation. I do not believe that it's an either-or proposition. So the dilemma is really, how do you secure that border area with minimal impact to the refuge?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Foreign language spoken).
BURNETT: At this recent anti-wall protest in the valley, demonstrators believe it is conservation that will lose.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Over loudspeaker, foreign language spoken).
BURNETT: Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, came down to the protest to warn that if the wall is built through Santa Ana, it will jeopardize one of the most storied birding spots in the hemisphere.
JEFFREY GORDON: You know, to us, this is like, for sports fans, I'm going to run a wall across Fenway Park or, you know, history buffs, if they were to put a wall across Gettysburg. I mean, we revere these areas.
BURNETT: The National Butterfly Center is also here in the valley. Within this hundred-acre preserve, a visitor can see a hundred species and the largest volume of butterflies in the nation. If the wall is built on the levee that bisects the center, it will isolate 70 percent of its property. Mariana Trevino Wright, the center's director, says the wall is an existential threat to the butterfly center.
MARIANA TREVINO WRIGHT: Once you put up this giant imposing wall and seal it off, people don't want to go beyond it because where are you going? What are you going to? You're walled off from the United States.
BURNETT: Due south of the city of Mission lies its namesake, the whitewashed historic La Lomita chapel was built by Oblate brothers. This is where the protest took place. Danny Rivas fears the border wall will dismember the chapel from the rest of Texas. He's a 63-year-old retired state worker from Mission with a sweaty no-border-wall T-shirt stuck to his chest.
DANNY RIVAS: People in Washington don't understand what they're trying to do to us. And then when they start cutting off us from La Lomita, from, you know, when they go through the ranches that they've had for generations. They are just doing something to say, look, we're doing something about immigration.
BURNETT: The Border Patrol says that construction will begin as soon as the Senate approves the White House's $1.6 billion request for 74 new miles of border wall. Passage, though, is not certain. John Burnett, NPR News, in the Rio Grande Valley.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEWARE OF SAFETY'S "HUSBANDS AND HANGMEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.